a portrait of a coolie
Chinese coolies formed the early backbone of Singapore's labour force, engaged mainly in hard physical labour. Coolie comes from the Chinese word ku-li meaning "hard labour". Ku also means "bitter". The coolie was thus, a picture of the hard and bitter life in early Singapore. They were mainly impoverished Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore in the later half of the 19th century, seeking their fortune but serving instead as indentured, unskilled labourers. Coolies were employed in almost every sector of work including construction work, plantation work, in ports and mines and as rickshaw pullers.
Chinese coolies were driven by poverty in China to seek a better life in Singapore. The immigration of Chinese coolies was high between the periods of 1823 to 1891 after Singapore became a free port, between 1910 to 1911 before the first world war and between 1926 to 1927, soon after the first world war. Coolie emigration decreased after 1927 because of economic depression, followed by the Japanese occupation and then the World War II. Coolie trade never peaked after this and most immigrants after World War II were skilled labour.
Coolies worked as rickshaw pullers, trishaw riders and farmers. They were employed in mines, ports, in rubber and other plantations, in clearing jungles and on construction sites. They did back-breaking tasks such as loading and unloading cargo and dulang washing or tin ore mining under the scorching sun. It was a common sight in early Singapore to see coolies carrying gunny sacks filled with commodities such as spices and sugar near the Singapore river.
extracted from an Infopedia Talk article written by Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala on 1997-11-08, National Library Board Singapore